February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month
February 15, 2019
Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month is a unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities and those who love them.
JDAIM is observed each February. But the truth is, while it brings the issues of disability inclusion to the forefront, inclusion is something we must focus on all year long. In our quest to include every member of our community, we would do well to pay attention to the following ancient examples of accommodation.
The Torah begins by telling us we are all created in God’s image. If everyone is created in the image of God, we have the responsibility to make sure that every single person—even those who differently abled—has equal opportunity to participate and feel accepted.
In the Book of Exodus, we read about Moses, our greatest leader and a man with many abilities, and numerous challenges. We know he had some sort of speech impediment.
A famous story about Moses is the one with the burning bush. When asked to lead the Israelites, Moses initially objects, saying you got the wrong guy! He is “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” a phrase that has led many rabbinic interpreters to assume he spoke with a stutter or lisp. In response, God affirms Moses’ many capabilities and notes that his brother, Aaron, can offer any support Moses needs to fulfill his responsibilities.
The message is clear: Moses did not seek a miracle or a distraction from his true predicament. He dug his heels into his reality and presented himself honestly to God. “I am heavy of mouth and tongue.” Perhaps, he speaks on behalf of every man or woman who possesses a disability. “These are the facts; we have everything to give—if society can learn to move past nature’s constraints and facilitate our abilities.”
Throughout the year we see an emphasis on inclusion.
We begin the Passover Seder by opening a door, ha lachma anya, or inviting in the hungry, the needy, and the enslaved. We offer the matzah as part of that welcome—it is a beautiful message offered freely and inclusive to all. We read about the four sons, each representing a different type, a cross section of the Jewish nation. What links the four together, despite their very different personalities and levels of observance, is the fact that they are all an intrinsic part of the Jewish people. During Passover, we celebrate with them, as they collectively join us at the Seder table.
At Shavuot, when God gave the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai before the nation: It didn’t matter if a person was young or old, male or female, abled or disabled. Mt. Sinai was and is for everyone, and if one member of the Jewish nation would not have been present at Mt. Sinai, the Torah would not have been given.
During Sukkot, we celebrate this unity in an even more concrete way, as we join together joyously in sukkahs, which include and embrace Jews of every kind, and perform the mitzvah of the Four Kinds (lulav and etrog), symbolizing the fact that despite differences in Torah knowledge and observance, we are all bound together by our souls’ Jewish identity and core connection to God.
Finally, we arrive at Shemini Atzeret. On this day, we express Jewish unity not in a passive sense (standing together in prayer) or even a symbolic sense (shaking a lulav); we demonstrate it through an experiential, concrete act that encompasses our entire being, from our head to our feet. We do it through the act of dancing, and more specifically, dancing in a circular formation, as is customary in Jewish tradition.
The inclusion of all Jews is the backbone of a flourishing Jewish community, and in the spirit of Jewish unity that the holiday of Shemini Atzeret so embodies, it is a ripe opportunity to shine a light on the importance of ensuring that every Jew, including those with disabilities, feels welcome in the festivities of the holiday.
So let’s ensure that every Jew feels welcome and included in the celebration of our most precious gift: our connection to God, to the Torah, and to the entire Jewish nation.
Yossi Kahana is director of Jewish National Fund’s Task Force on Disabilities, an umbrella and coordinating body for the various JNF programs and partners for people with disabilities in Israel.